September 29, 2023

Hey Leaders: Let’s Do Hard (Christian)Things

Do Hard Things

I love the new book by high performance coach Steve Magness, Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness.

Performance Coach Steve Magness doesn’t look like real toughness, but his book oozes with it

I’ve followed Steve’s career as a high performance coach since he was the whistle-blower at the Nike Oregon Project, in which marathon legend Alberto Salazar sailed close to the edge (and probably over it), seeking that little bit extra from his runners. The decision by Magness cost him in the short term.

But not in the long term. He came out of that debacle smelling of roses. Salazar? Well there was a different whiff about him. Still is. Magness is not simply a sports high performance coach: His skills are employed by the likes of NASA in order to get the best out of people. His insight into what makes humans tick is amazing. He kinda has a PhD in “people”. And as you can see from his picture he’s not the gym junkie Adonis

I initially bought the book because, as a runner, I wanted to see if I could break a few barriers, particularly mental barriers, in my own running regime. I know that much of my success – or otherwise – resides in that under-utilised muscle – my brain! So much of what we achieve or don’t achieve is dictated by how we feel mentally at the time about the challenge we are facing.

What sets Magness apart from other coaching/performance consultants is his exceptionally sophisticated and mature approach to psychology, family of origin issues, societal factors and the like when it comes to performance. And in a critical way Magness turns much of what we think about resilience on his head, doing so by simply looking at the stats and outcomes of resilience training methods.

The famed sociological author and podcaster, Malcolm Gladwell (also a solid runner who is happy for anyone to follow him on Strava) had this to say:

Steve Magness beautifully and persuasively reimagines our understanding of toughness. This is a must-read for parents and coaches and anyone else looking to prepare for life’s biggest challenges.

Meanwhile New York Times bestselling author, Cal Newport, of Deep Work fame, observed:

It delivers a critical message for our current age of posing and performance: real toughness is not about callous bravado, but instead about the ability to navigate difficulty with grace and an unwavering focus on what matters.

Fake Toughness

Magness has a lot to say about what real toughness is, but the first thing he does – and it’s critical because it’s so pervasive not just in the sports world, but the world in general, is to break down fake toughness. So he observes:

Fake toughness is easy to identify…It’s the idea that toughness is about fighting and ass-kicking. It’s the guy picking a fight at your local gym. The anonymous poster acting like a hard-ass on message boards. The bully at school. The executive who masks his insecurity by yelling at his subordinates. The strength coach who works her athletes so hard that they frequently get injured or sick. The person who hates the “other” because that’s a lot easier than facing their own pain and suffering. The parent who confuses demandingness for discipline. The coach who mistakes control for respect. And the vast majority of us who have mistaken external signs of strength for inner confidence and drive. We’ve fallen for a kind of fake toughness that is:

control and power driven

developed through fear

fueled by insecurity

based on appearance over substance.

Fake Christian Toughness

Now you may be reading this and wondering what it has to do with Christian leadership. Or perhaps you can see some kinda spiritualised self-help coming on. Some sort of slogan on a poster that you’d get at Christian Kmart. But none of it. Leaving aside the longer part of Magness’ quote above, have a look at the four aspects of fake toughness he lists below that and ask yourself “When you’ve seen poor leadership in the Christian church, how often do those terrible characteristics surface.

Often I bet. And in the ten or so years that my wife Jill and I have been helping people through difficult church situations in which narcissistic leadership has shredded people, those four contra-values appear time and time again. In fact there seems to be NO difference between bad secular leadership and bad spiritual leadership. The same problems exhibit themselves and inevitably the same results.

And it is particularly noticeable in my tribe – the newer type of Reformed evangelicals. Hate to have to say that. But it’s true. It’s just true. It’s not unique to us, but there’s a certain attraction to such a leader who can, as we have been wont to think, lead us through these straitened anti-Christian secular times. Sure he – and it’s invariably a he – breaks a few eggs to make that omelette, but that’s worth it right?

Wrong. Yet time and time again I see it. There’s a depressing sameness to it on the private Facebook pages I belong to in which people have recounted their experiences with bad Christian leaders. And the same four issues come up constantly. The same four issues came up for me in two very complex and toxic situations a few years ago and, sadly, another complex and toxic one, just a few weeks ago.

There seems to be a problem in our ministry pipeline in which those who exhibit these problematic personality traits are not weeded out in the first place. All too often it seems like psychologists and counsellors/coaches are being asked to do the impossible task of retro-fitting healthy personality traits into people who are already in Christian leadership.

It feels like the damage has been done, and the best we can do is try to minimise it going forward. Christian ministry needs a far more robust screening service. Yet in my experience, and in my theological circle, the theological acumen screening service – alongside a certain level of gifting – is almost enough.

Why is it that Christian leadership seems to attract narcissistic personalities? And not only to attract them, but to reward them? I think part of the answer is that such personalities are just as readily willing to manipulate spiritual language to their own ends, as ordinary language. The Christian narcissistic leader has a superpower – gospel language that well-meaning subordinates and other Christians dare not challenge.

Interestingly my wife, having heard some of the book and hearing me quote it, asked “Is Steve Magness a Christian?” When I said “No.”, she said “Isn’t it shameful? Why so often do we have to look to the world for the best material on this issue?” You’d think our superpower is Jesus Christ. Our supreme example of true toughness, one that endured the cross for the sake of the glory to come, and for the sake of his people. Too often he becomes a cover for us to behave how we like.

Do Hard Christian Things

The evangelical church over the next thirty years is going to pay the price for paying too much attention to the wrong kind of leadership toughness. It already is. Just read the books that are dealing with the outflow of poor leadership. And it seems to me that at a sophisticated level, there are often far better secular thinkers in this space than Christian thinkers, Steve Magness being one of them.

Perhaps the time has come to put to the sword the adage that “He may be a jerk, but he’s our jerk (oh and he gets stuff done).” That attitude is wracking up a body count that I have seen up close and personal in conservative evangelicalism. Magness’ book is worth a read, and I am sure I will quote more of it in a week or so after I have finished the hard 10km race I am scheduled to run (and why I bought the book in the first place).

But Christian leaders, ponder this for a moment, where Magness points out how truly do hard things:

Toughness is about making the pull for closure amid uncertainty work for you, not against you. It’s training the mind to handle uncertainty long enough that you can nudge or guide your response in the right direction. To create space so that you don’t jump straight from unease to the quickest possible solution, but to the “correct” one. The first step in redefining toughness is to understand where we went wrong, why bulldozing through often leads to the worst outcome.

And sure, there aren’t any Bible verses listed in this blog post or in Steve Magness’ quotes. But to be honest I’ve had my fair share of Bible verses shoved down my throat, and way too many uses of the term ” a gospel decision” by Christian leaders who fail the Magness toughness test at the first hurdle.

I’ve seen and experienced too many Christian leaders who in times of uncertainty flip towards the wrong direction in an unguided and unguarded moment, and who do not have the confidence to sit in the unease for a while, and who end up bulldozing people and situations.

And worst of all, I’ve seen and experienced too many Christian leaders who, all-the-while knowing they have a gospel that says “You are worse than you think you are, but more loved than you dare imagine“, refuse to countenance that they could be wrong, finding new and interesting ways to blame-shift and scapegoat.

Turns out for too many leaders in the church the hardest thing to do is not growing a church, or shifting out one staff member and bringing in another, but simply admitting that they were wrong. If that’s you – then do the hard thing. It’s the first step to true toughness.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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